There can be few places to rival Prince’s Golf Club as a place to watch the sun rise on a day like this.
We’re sitting by the putting green at The Lodge at Prince’s, waiting. In the dawn mist, Sandwich Bay itself is so still it’s as if someone has placed a piece of dark glass on the water. Soon the sun starts to appear on the horizon and the light begins to creep across the 27-holes away to our left, illuminating the white of the sand scrapes, dancing across the texture of the sleeper paths and catching the long grasses, which must be home to a thousand hidden golf balls.
At this time of the morning, the true majesty of the Kent coastline is revealed in all its glory. In golf terms, it feels nothing short of a paradise, with Prince’s looking resplendent, the 13th green and 14th tee at Royal St George’s just the other side of a wire fence and Royal Cinque Ports, or Deal as its better known, a mile or two down the coast.
Bill, the 88-year-old caretaker at Prince’s Golf Club, is also up early and introduces himself. It’s hard to imagine a more friendly welcome, or a better companion to walk the fairways with at this time in the morning. He shares stories, listens to ours and sets us up beautifully for the day ahead. His has been a life well lived, he clearly loves it here.
From the moment we drove through the gates of the Sandwich Bay Estate, we have shared that feeling. The land around Prince’s is private with visitors, other than those headed to the golf course, paying for the privilege of being here. We pass beautiful homes on our way to the seafront, before turning left alongside Royal St George’s on our left and the seafront on our right. On this particular morning, it’s peppered with fisherman, dog walkers and bird watchers. It’s a road which takes you all the way to the Prince’s clubhouse, which sits at the heart of things.
After our early start, it’s warm enough to eat breakfast on the terrace at The Lodge, which was once the clubhouse here. We drink it all in, watching the greenkeepers cutting the 5th green of The Shore Course, which is no more than 10 paces from our table. A walker, with two huge Irish wolfhounds and just one golf club, knocks his ball along the 13th at Royal St George’s as the sun rises over the dunes. Is there a better way to start a day?
It only gets better when we walk down the road to play Prince’s, which hosted The Open in 1932. The road which takes us there carves its way through the course, signs indicate golfers have the right of way as they criss-cross between greens and tees. The three loops of 9 holes present different challenges and possess different characteristics. Today we’ll play 18 of the 27 holes – The Dunes and The Himalayas. The Shore Course must wait.
The history of Princes Golf Club is fascinating. Prior to World War II it was an 18-hole course that, at one time, was considered the finest (and longest at 7,000 yards) in the land. It opened in 1906 with club captain Arthur Balfour, who’d resigned as British Prime Minister a year earlier, striking the ceremonial opening tee shot. Back then the course was peppered with treacherous bunkers, the most infamous trio of which were known as The Himalayas.
The stellar reputation of Prince’s was such that The Open was held here in 1932, with the charismatic American, Gene Sarazen lifting the Claret Jug thanks to a new wedge, designed especially for bunker play – known as a sand wedge.
The outbreak of World War II changed everything, however. The army took possession of the land to use for battle training, all but destroying the links in the process. It wasn’t until 1949 that what was left of the course was returned to the club. From the wreckage, a new design emerged with Prince’s Golf Club managing to salvage 17 of the original greens and incorporate them into a 27 hole layout – made up of three distinct loops of 9 holes.
As we reach the clubhouse and step out onto the panoramic terrace, the beauty of all three reveal themselves to us.
To our left, The Himalayas. Ahead, the 1st tee of The Shore, which spreads right along the coast. Behind us to the right, The Dunes course, where we’ll begin our round today. Golf is at the heart of the entire experience. It is priced to be affordable, to be a place for all as much as that’s possible and yet the tee sheets are deliberately kept at no more than 80% capacity to ensure it never feels crowded, which was certainly our experience of the place.
From a distance, the land which Prince’s occupies may not look particularly dramatic. You won’t find towering dunes or dramatic elevation changes here and yet its undeniable magic is revealed to those who walk the fairways with a bag of clubs on their backs. The holes are full of crumpled, rippled, contours while the runoffs around the greens a feature throughout. The 1st hole at The Dunes is a perfect example, with a narrow, hogs back putting surface, funnelling errant shots away. There are so many good holes, though, the 2nd is a lovely par-3, the 5th and 6th have greens which feel like they are perched on top of dunes.
The work done here by Martin Ebert would be hard to identify for those who had not visited before his improvements, such is the brilliance of his work. While the changes have been significant, they have been done with the lightest touch, restoring natural features, adding a drama and raising tees to bring Sandwich Bay into view. Ebert discovered old RAF aerial photographs from the 1930s and used them to restore natural sand scrapes and wetlands. A master at work.
For many years, The Himalayas was seen as the weakest of the three courses. It was this nine which first prompted the McGuirk family, the owners, to bring Ebert to Prince’s. They tasked him with doing three things: build a par-3 facing the ocean, create more views of the sea and design a true risk-reward hole. The par-3 5th ticks the first box. It’s played directly towards the English Channel and is a stimulating, memorable short hole where the run-offs are more brutal than the bunkers. Throughout the tees have been moved to high ground to bring better views of the bay and the 312 yard 8th is a wonderful risk-reward par-4 with water down both sides of a fairway strewn with pot bunkers.
The days when The Himalayas was viewed as the weak link at Prince’s are long gone. It’s inventive, original and beautifully presented. We spoke to a member outside the clubhouse who said it was his favourite course. We didn’t play the Shore Course but I am sure it wouldn’t be hard to find other members who felt the same about each loop of nine.
Our stay at Prince’s was all too brief. We could’ve stayed a week and felt as if we discovered something new about this place on each and every day. The courses are immaculate, the greens are beautifully quick and as true as you would want them to be. The greens and surrounds leave you a myriad of options when considering your next shot, from putter to lob wedge, there are always opportunities to be creative and conjure up shots. Tees blend into green complexes, the sleeper paths are wonderful – no detail has been overlooked. It’s genuinely difficult to find fault.
As we drove away, it was hard to shake the sense that Prince’s Golf Club has the feel of a genuine golf destination in the spirit of somewhere like Kiawah Island. It’s not something traditional English links clubs do well, but Prince’s really does have it all: fantastic on-site accommodation, excellent food, a beautiful clubhouse, extensive practice facilities, a rich history and three stunning courses. Those elements add up to give Prince’s the feel of a club and a place, rather like that wonderful sunrise, that’s very much on the up and up. In golf terms it’s every bit as memorable.
*To book a round at Prince’s or to stay and play visit PrincesGolfClub.co.uk